The Fiction of Don Thomasson
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
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Monaco has changed much with the passing years and not always for the better. One by one the familiar landmarks have disappeared, to be replaced by brash modern structures. Even the circuit has changed so that the races held on it are less interesting, the possibility of one car overtaking another reduced to minimal proportions.
This story has deliberately been set in a Monaco which no longer exists. This has allowed the use of topical allusions to contemporary figures, some sadly no longer with us. However, the particular Grand Prix described will not be found in the record books and the story is entirely fictional.
On the other hand, it would be idle to deny that the six day coach tour was that run for many years by Leon Page and Tony Moy, or that John and Tim have given much appreciated assistance as couriers, while many will recognise the coach drivers mentioned. By way of apology for involving these gentlemen in such scandalous goings on, the book must be dedicated to them all and to anyone else who feels that he can recognise himself as part of the motor racing background.
In the lull between the early rush of homeward bound customers and the main business of the evening, the bar was almost empty. A young man was perched on a stool by the rounded section of counter near the door, apparently engrossed in a careful study of his newspaper. Two men were chatting with the landlord at the far end of the bar, their laughter suggesting an exchange of the latest jokes. No one else was in sight.
A dapper man with greying hair came in quietly, pausing in the doorway to survey the scene with satisfaction. Hitching himself onto a stool near that occupied by the young man, he obtained a pint of beer and waited until the landlord had returned to his friends before speaking softly.
'Glad you could make it, Jimmy.'
The young man continued to study his newspaper, giving no sign that he had heard the remark. The reply barely moved his lips. 'Pleasure's mine. Nice to see you looking so fit. New job?'
After a momentary hesitation, the older man chuckled. 'We may as well talk openly. It might even be less noticeable. Yes, a new job. Young scientific genius called Simon Carter. Bright boy with a mathematical bias. Possible security risk, but not under any real suspicion. Last January he booked a place on a package tour to Monaco. Six day trip during May. We had no serious objections, but it appears someone else didn't like the idea. Things started happening to him. Nasty little scuffle in Soho. Bullet through one of the windows of his house. Dangerous skid when he was driving fast. No obvious connection, but after each incident he received a brief phone call. Don't go to Monaco. Just those four words. No hint of the reason, or of the caller's identity.'
'Charming!' Jimmy took a thoughtful pull at his beer. 'I wonder what he plans to do in Monaco that could upset anyone.'
'I haven't the slightest idea.' It was a reluctant confession. 'He says he's going to watch the big motor race., Perhaps he is. He's interested in that sort of thing.'
'Nothing out of the way in that.' The young man frowned. 'A passive activity that shouldn't cause annoyance. You're thinking it may be a cover for something else?'
'It must be.' There was a hint of irritation in the dapper man's voice. 'I only wish we could get at the truth.'
'Am I to be nursemaid?'
'More or less. We keep a fairly constant eye on the man, but I think he knows that and resents the fact. Someone new and apparently independent might get more co-operation.'
'He's very alert and he reacts rather strongly. The dossier will fill you in on that.'
Bringing an envelope out of an inner pocket, the dapper man laid it on the edge of the bar while apparently searching for something deeper in the same pocket. The young man reached out for his beer and the envelope vanished. So did the beer. The landlord was invited to supply more.
When he had gone the dapper man changed the subject. 'Since you haven't said anything to the contrary, I assume that you got here without incident. I want you to go back by the same route, but wait for me at the station. Someone seemed interested in my movements on the way down and you might be able to pick them up on the way back.'
The young man's eyes automatically flickered over the group at the far end of the bar and scanned the windows, but the dapper man shook his head. 'I wasn't followed from the station. I made sure of that. I could break the trail completely by going back through Kingston, but it won't do you any harm to have a little field practice. You might even find out something useful.'
This made the young man smile, but before he could make any comment an influx of customers put an end to the private conversation. The two men chatted for a while longer, for they were good friends as well as colleagues, but there was no further mention of young scientists or trips to Monaco. In the end, an unobtrusive sign from the dapper man suggested that it was time for his companion to make a move.
James Allardyce Ferguson, to give the young man his full name, went on his way enjoying the feeling of anticipatory excitement which always came with a new job. He had been carrying out a variety of tasks for Geoff Farnfield for several months now and none of them had been dull or boring. No one else knew of their association, for it was essential to their method of working that Jimmy should seem to be a free agent and Geoff had always been careful to preserve this illusion.
Their meeting at the Dysart Arms, for example, had been arranged by telephone, Geoff using a call box to make sure the line would not be tapped. The instructions had been precise. Underground train to Richmond, then on foot by the Thames to Petersham, that odd village remnant surrounded by suburban London. Arrive at the Dysart Arms at exactly six thirty.
The reason for the riverside walk had become apparent when Jimmy had found himself in the middle of a wide expanse of water meadows with no cover for a hundred yards or more in any direction. Anyone following him would have been forced to show themselves and Jimmy had been able to make sure that he had not been traced to the rendezvous. That would have been rather unlikely in any case. It was more important to be sure he was not being followed on the return journey.
When he had first begun to work with Geoff, such complicated arrangements had irritated Jimmy a little. They seemed overdone, but he soon realised that they were essential is he was to maintain his pose as a freelance writer with no secondary interests. If that pose were destroyed, his usefulness would diminish abruptly, for he had neither the inclination nor the aptitude to work openly as a member of Geoff's regular staff.
Arriving at Richmond station, Jimmy found a quiet corner from which he could keep an eye on the booking hall. Most of the travellers who passed through it were heading out of the station and he felt he could ignore these. If anyone wanted to pick Geoff up on his return journey they would wait in the forecourt or in the booking hall itself.
None of the half dozen people who remained comparatively stationary within Jimmy's field of view seemed especially worthy of suspicion. There was a honey blonde who was definitely worth a second look, but that was a different matter entirely. In any case, Jimmy preferred brunettes and one brunette in particular. A shifty looking man might have been a possible candidate until a massive woman appeared to claim him, hustling him out of the station as if he was a recalcitrant pet dog. Jimmy sighed, reflecting that the man he was looking for was probably quite undistinguished in appearance.
When Geoff arrived ten minutes later, Jimmy had still reached no useful conclusions. No one seemed to take any notice as Geoff crossed the hall to the ticket window and no one appeared to follow him as he passed through the gate and went down the steps leading to the District Line and North London platform. Disappointed, Jimmy bought his own ticket and headed in the same direction. It looked as if Geoff's follower had given up.
As he paused at the gate for his ticket to be checked, Jimmy noticed that the blonde was going down the stairs ahead of him, but decided that it could have been pure coincidence that she had moved just after Geoff had passed that way.
Fading into the background shadows of the dimly lit lower concourse, he considered the position carefully. Geoff was standing near the entrance to the District platform, apparently undecided whether to go one way or the other. This was so uncharacteristic that it must mean something and Jimmy became alert. He saw that the honey blonde was examining the train departure board, which showed that a District train was due out in ten minutes, with a North London leaving three minutes later. It took a full minute for the implication of these times to dawn on him.
If the blonde intended to catch a train, why had she chosen to stay in the booking hall while trains left on both routes and then come down to the lower concourse when no departure was imminent? There could be only one explanation and it was soon confirmed.
Seeming to decide that there was no need to board his train yet, Geoff turned on his heel and marched towards the back of the concourse, where he disappeared through an opening clearly marked for the convenience of gentlemen only. It was now the girl's turn to hesitate uncertainly. After a moment of indecision, she made her way to a seat facing the departure board, took a book from her bag and pretended to read. Away in his obscure corner Jimmy chuckled softly. She had managed very well and from the way she held her book he suspected that it might conceal a mirror which would give her warning of Geoff's return, but there could no longer be any doubt that she was trying to follow him. Jimmy wished her luck.
Just to make things difficult, Geoff reappeared little more than a minute before the train was due out. The girl followed him onto the platform, both moving at a brisk pace. Jimmy brought up the rear, wanting to keep as close as he could without making his presence conspicuous. Geoff walked right up the platform to the second coach from the front and Jimmy was sure that the doors would close before they could get aboard. In the end, he just made it, entering the rear of the third coach as the girl entered the door at the far end.
The train rumbled on its way, Jimmy feeling far from happy with the situation. He could see the girl, but Geoff was out of sight. The girl could see Geoff and thus had an advantage since Jimmy had no idea where Geoff would leave the train. All he could do was to stand by the door in use at each station, ready to slip out if the girl made a move.
He thought she was on her way at Hammersmith, but after a tentative movement she sank back again. She sat perfectly still at Baron's Court and Jimmy wondered where the chase would end. He was answered at Earls Court, where the girl scrambled hastily to her feet as the doors gave that peculiar preparatory cough just before they started to close. She got out easily enough, but Jimmy had to squeeze through against the pressure of the closing mechanism.
By the time he recovered his balance the girl had vanished. Geoff was strolling idly towards the stairs at the end of the platform as if he hadn't a care in the world and Jimmy guessed that the girl had dived into the subway, intending to hurry along the opposite platform and get to the exit first, so avoiding any danger of being held up at the ticket barrier. As the train pulled out Jimmy was able to confirm this guess. With the girl too intent on threading her way among the people on the other platform to notice much else, he decided to risk a brief sprint. This carried him past Geoff and he paused on the landing halfway up the stairs to fumble with a shoe lace so that he could mutter 'Honey blonde. Other stairs.' Geoff acknowledged the message with a grunt and went on without the slightest pause.
The girl left the station first, but paused on the edge of the pavement to see which way Geoff would go. He turned right, strolling nonchalantly down Earls Court Road as if he had all the time in the world, but Jimmy saw him glance briefly at his watch and decided that things were about to happen. It was dark now and he closed up a little, prepared for anything.
Geoff led the procession into Earls Court Square and glanced at his watch again. His pace increased slightly and Jimmy slipped across the road to get a better view. A taxi came into sight, cruising slowly towards Geoff. It stopped level with him, he got in and both he and the taxi disappeared round the corner in the twinkling of an eye. Jimmy felt rather sorry for the girl, who seemed to be talking to herself, perhaps as a way of relieving her feelings. It must have been annoying to feel that all her efforts had been wasted, but she never had any real hope of getting the better of Geoff.
It was now up to Jimmy to make sure she had no chance to play any similar tricks on him in return. As they travelled westward in an Ealing train, he watched her warily through the communicating doors from the next carriage, but she sat staring at the floor, looking disgusted with herself and showing no interest in her surroundings. This surprised Jimmy a little. He had assumed that she was a professional who would take defeat philosophically. Perhaps he had been wrong. Her technique had been good, though not perfect. She had done as well as she could have expected but she had made one glaring error, in that she had not spotted Jimmy's presence. He was sure of that.
She got out at Hammersmith and walked along the platform with a rather dispirited air, Jimmy following at a discreet distance. Aware that the area around Hammersmith Broadway was something of a maze, both above and below ground level, he had no intention of letting her get too far ahead. She led him out through the main station entrance and round to the right through the Butterwick bus station, but showed no interest in any of the buses, which suggested that she was within walking distance of her goal. Beyond the bus station, with the soaring piers of the motorway flyover looming above, the pavements were deserted and Jimmy had to lag behind a little. When he rounded the next corner the girl was nowhere in sight.
A pedestrian subway entrance just ahead suggested her immediate route, but Jimmy knew that it led to more than one exit. He had to wait patiently, peering through gaps in the traffic, until he saw her walking past the Odeon on the far side of the road. A quick sprint through the subway brought her into sight again and Jimmy breathed a sigh of relief. She seemed to be heading for Hammersmith Bridge and there were so few turnings that he risked lagging behind again. This was just as well for she decided to stop and look at the river view for a while, Jimmy pretending to do the same a little further along.
Beyond the bridge, Jimmy watched his quarry pass the Lonsdale Road traffic lights without crossing and concluded that her destination was on the eastern side of Castelnau. She was unlikely to walk all the way to Barnes and there were no convenient crossing places further down.
Just as he reached this comforting conclusion, however, Jimmy was accosted by an importune drunk who seemed to materialise out of the paving stones. The man was friendly, confidential, optimistic and apparently short of ready cash. Jimmy extricated himself as rapidly and as gracefully as he could but the damage was done. The girl had vanished again, this time more effectively. She might have gone into any one of a dozen houses on the left, most of them divided into flats. Though Jimmy toyed with the idea of doing a little scouting in the gardens he knew that Geoff would disapprove.
The girl could be found easily enough now that the possibilities had been whittled down and any rash move on Jimmy's part might warn her that she was under surveillance. Shrugging his shoulders, he gave up and went home.
At this particular time, home was a bachelor flat in Bayswater, though he was looking forward to moving to more comfortable quarters when a certain young lady returned from a spell of overseas duty. Meanwhile, the place had advantages, such as an unobtrusive back entrance. Jimmy considered that more valuable than comfort.
Setting up an ordinary transparency projector and a screen, he made sure that the heavy curtains were properly drawn before investigating the contents of the envelope Geoff had given him. The dossier was in the form of slides and when these were loaded into the projector he could relax in a comfortable chair and study the information they contained.
Apart from the fact that they were both in their late twenties, with Jimmy a few months the elder, he found that he had little in common with Simon Carter. Carter was fair, Jimmy was dark. Carter was taller at five foot eleven, but Jimmy's sturdy build made him the heavier at about eleven stone. The biggest contrast, however, lay in their academic attainments. Jimmy had no qualifications worth mentioning and was not in any way ashamed of the fact. He had always lived by his wits, but the talents he had found most useful were not of the kind likely to be recognised by degrees or diplomas. Carter, on the other hand, was entitled to put a long string of letters after his name and was described as having an international reputation.
Regarding the nature of Carter's work, however, the dossier was almost ostentatiously reticent, which probably meant that the work was highly secret. Yet Geoff had described the man as a possible security risk, which seemed contradictory.
The further details given by the dossier did nothing to diminish this contradiction. Some years before, Carter had been involved in an organisation with decidedly undesirable associations. This could have been nothing worse than youthful foolishness, but he had never completely lost touch with the people concerned. His contacts with them appeared to be on a strictly social basis, but it was difficult to be sure of that.
When a man with such a dubious background is given highly secret work, there must be a compelling reason. Carter must be so outstandingly useful that the risk was worth while. Even so, it was understandable that he should be kept under fairly constant surveillance just to make sure that he was behaving himself and not misusing his contacts with undesirable people.
Unmarried and with no living relations, Carter owned a large house in Finchley which had belonged to his parents. It was much too big for his needs, but he seemed disinclined to move. This attitude was ascribed either to sentiment or to natural inertia, but Jimmy thought there might be another reason. He was already beginning to sense the way Carter's mind worked and he thought he could see a pattern of natural cussedness emerging. The man might be keeping in touch with old and undesirable friends because someone had advised him not to do so. He might be staying in the house because he had been advised to move.
Carter's main hobby was motor racing. He had once joined a school for racing drivers, much to the alarm of his mentors, but he had soon decided that his temperament was unsuited to this kind of activity. He drove with skill and panache when his mind was on the job, but he tended to lose concentration after a time, turning his thoughts to calculations of speed and distance instead of working out braking points and ideal cornering lines. He was now content to be a spectator, attending at least one meeting in the course of each weekend during the season.
This created problems for the men detailed to watch him, not least because he had a knack of wangling his way into dangerous track side positions with the aid of marshal's and photographer's passes, leaving his guardians to bite their fingernails impotently in the public enclosures. He also owned a white Marcos 1800 which had an alarming turn of speed. His watchers were all fast drivers themselves, but when the conditions were favourable Carter left them panting along far behind.
He had a limited respect for speed limits, to put it mildly. On one occasion a watcher trying to follow him had been stopped by the police and given a severe dressing down. Carter himself was never stopped. Perhaps he was lucky. Perhaps the car rode so stably that it appeared to be maintaining a much lower speed. The watchers, however, were convinced that the police simply felt that chasing him would be a waste of time and effort.
Everyone was fervently thankful that the Monaco trip was to be made by an organised tour. The prospect of keeping the Marcos in sight all the way across France at an average of over a hundred miles an hour would have been a daunting one. Other worries remained, however. He might be planning to meet someone particularly undesirable in the Principality. He might intend to make the Monaco trip merely the first leg of a longer journey into enemy territory. He might succumb to the blandishments of a Rivieri houri and allow himself to be compromised.
Jimmy felt that these fears were slightly hysterical. He saw nothing odd in a motor racing enthusiast travelling to Monaco to watch the Grand Prix. He had done it himself. Nor did he feel that Carter would be likely to do anything which could result in his exile to a part of the world where motor racing is almost non-existent. As for houris, he doubted whether they would meet with much success. A man like Carter would undoubtedly be interested in the female sex, but houris rarely present the sort of challenge which appeals to adventurous young gentlemen.
The incidents and the associated threats were an entirely different matter. Jimmy was quite ready to concede that they provided ample cause for concern, even though no real danger had threatened Carter at any time. The window of his house which had been shattered by a bullet belonged to a room that was never used. The scuffle in Soho seemed to have been quite a mild affair. These incidents had been alarming at the time, no doubt, but they were clearly demonstrations of what might happen, rather than direct attacks. This applied to all the incidents with one possible exception.
The only really dangerous episode had occurred when Carter was on his way to Brands Hatch for one of the first meetings of the year. He was about to overtake another car on a fast stretch of the A20 when the Marcos went into a high speed skid, careering off the road onto the grass verge and back again before Carter could regain control. The bodyguard on duty had watched the spectacle with horrified alarm, but he had been even more horrified when he heard the story Carter told to an AA scout who stopped to offer assistance.
Carter was convinced that the skid had been caused by liquid sprayed from the car he had been about to pass, liquid which made his rear wheels lose traction as he tried to accelerate past. The road was certainly damp and several passing cars were having momentary problems. The AA man diagnosed a mixture of oil and water and fetched some sand to spread on the slippery patch.
No one had noticed the number of the offending car and there was no possible way in which it could be traced. It was just another incident, leaving Carter a little more annoyed and a little less inclined to talk about the matter. The warning call came that evening, not long after he arrived home. It had been monitored as usual. before he put the phone down Carter was heard to give a firm reply to the warning not to go to Monaco.
'I'll get there if it kills me!'
Putting the projector equipment away and slotting the slides into a box otherwise occupied by innocent looking colour pictures, Jimmy hoped that Carter's reply had been no more than a figure of speech. He had a nasty suspicion that someone might be planning to turn it into something more factual and it was his job to see that they failed in the attempt. Geoff had given him some interesting jobs in the past, but this one looked like topping them all.
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| The Fiction of Don Thomasson |
|© Keith Thomasson February 11th 2002|